If you’re going to get to the Saline Hornets, you better do it early. Because Hornet D downright stingy in the second half.
The impenetrable second half defense, a theme all season, held the host Monroe Trojans off the board as Saline won 20-13 Friday night. Saline is now 5-1 and 3-1 in the SEC. Monroe suffered its first loss of the season and fell to 5-1 and 3-1 in the SEC.
Saline can clinch a playoff berth Friday when the Hornets host Huron for Homecoming.
The game was tied at 13 after the first half. Monroe started the second half with the ball and slowly pushed the ball down the field, converting two fourth downs as they pushed to the Saline 12, where the Hornets finally held the line. That was as close as Monroe got to the end zone in the second half.
Coach Joe Palka said Saline’s second half defense has been a strength for the team all year.
“We get used to the speed of what they’re trying to do. Our kids adjust pretty well and coaches adjust pretty well,” Palka said. “But our kids are just playing hard. Monroe is a great team. It was a back and forth battle all night.”
Palka said Saline’s strength comes from its conditioning and practice, and the fact that Saline rarely uses players on offense and defense. Most of Saline’s opponents, like Monroe, use several key players both ways.
Senior Caleb Ashby made 11 tackles, including four for a loss. He also broke up two passes and ended a first-half drive by forcing and recovering a fumble.
“We started a little soft, but as you’ve seen, our defense gets stronger. That’s our conditioning. I think our opponents have only scored 14 points all season,” Ashby said. “That’s our half.”
The Hornets refused to let the heartbreaking loss to Pioneer early in the season snowball. Instead, the loss now looks like a hiccup on the schedule of a formidable football club.
“I told (my teammates) after the heartbreaker, ‘Remember how losing feels. Remember this. Because we don’t ever want to feel like this again,’” Ashby said. “And we responded.
Saline aggressively opened the game. Tyler Palka’s flat pass (13-for-23, 148 yards) to Gage Hammond (two catches , 60 yards) moved Saline out to midfield and after a couple great runs by Kevin Gross (25 carries for 175 yards, 2TD, 3 catches for 29 yards), Saline was in the red zone. Saline had a first-and-goal from the three when the Trojan defense built a wall. On fourth-and-three, Hammond kicked a field goal for a 3-0 lead.
It took Monroe 2:59 seconds to answer. Gaetano Paolino’s kickoff return gave Monroe the ball at midfield. Eight plays later, Monroe was in the end zone. The kick made it 7-3.
The Hornets looked like they got it right back with Hammond’s second kickoff return touchdown in two weeks, but while Hammond and the Hornets celebrated in the end zone, officials ruled him out of bounds at the Monroe 46. Saline pushed ahead to the Monroe 31 but turned the ball over on downs.
Monroe’s next drive went 30 yards on five plays when Ashby put it a stop to it. On first-and-10 from the Saline 40, the Trojans called a run up the middle. Ashby stripped the ball and recovered it in the pile.
Using short passes and runs by Gross, Saline moved the ball into Monroe territory. A 17-yard rush by Gross gave Saline a first down at the Monroe 6. A couple of rushes went for small gains and a third-down pass was dropped in the end zone. On fourth-and-goal from the four, Hammond kicked his second field goal of the game and Saline was down, 7-6 with 8:03 to play in the half.
The Hornets defense began to look stronger on Monroe’s next drive, but the Trojans kept the drive moving with a fourth-down conversion and then scored on a fourth-and-7 from the 9 pass from Thomas West to Nathan Daniels. The kick was wide and Monroe led 13-6 with 1:51 to play.
Saline got an important equalizing touchdown before the end of the half. Hammond gave Saline great field position again with a good return. A pass from Palka to Hammond gave Saline first-and-goal from the six. Two plays later, Griffin Wooley pounded his way from three yards out. Hammond’s kick tied the game at 13.
In the second half, Monroe’s opening drive was stopped at the Saline 12. A couple plays later, a scrambling Palka threw a short pass to Hammond who was off to the races for a 64-yard touchdown reception. But the play was called back because an ineligible receiver downfield. Saline moved the ball up the field and kept the drive going with a big run up the gut by Gross on 4th-and-7. The drive came to an end at the 26 when Gross was caught in the backfield on fourth-and-1.
Monroe’s next drive pushed up to the Saline 29 before the Hornets battled them back. Ashby caught Paolino in the backfield for a one-yard loss on first down. On third down, Nick Sekerak and Ashby dropped a Trojan runner for a three yard loss. On fourth down, Dominic DiMelis sacked West for a 10-yard loss and Saline took over at their own 44 with 8:54 to play. Rushes by Gross and Wooley and couple short passes moved Saline up field. On 3rd-and-1 from the 20, Gross rushed in for the touchdown. Hammond’s kick made it 20-13 with 7:18 to play.
The next drive by Monroe featured the game's only three-and-out and the game’s only punt. Saline got the ball back with 5:59 to play. Wooley and Gross moved Saline to the Monroe 18, but Saline was stopped on 4th-and-1. Monroe got the ball back on their 25 with 2:18 to play and moved the ball to Saline’s 39 before turning the ball over on downs.